PRINT December 1994



Shoe First, Ask Questions Later
The screen is on, it’s flickering, making a blur of static. It’s watching. Nixon dreamed of this: a TV that would watch you while you were watching it, and even when you had turned it off. It’s not clear whether or not he achieved this dream; they say not, but who knows? William Burroughs knows. Because now the static is cleared, and a screen falls out of the sky, and Burroughs is there, inside the box inside the box. He is watching you watching him. Now listen: Burroughs is talking.

He says, “Technology exists to free the body, not to enslave the mind.” Then he disappears and there’s a stream of quick-cut scenes of people whose bodies have been made free by technology. They are running, jumping, skiing, flying. They are throwing it down with authority. They are making the sign of the Nike swoosh. Now Bill Burroughs is telling us that technology has “carried their bodies farther, faster, higher than ever before.” You can tell this is true, because they are inside all our boxes, inside big screens, medium screens, itty-bitty screens across the country—they are everywhere at the same time. Technology has freed them from the need for a body, and if you are lucky, and you buy the shoe, you can be free too.

So clearly you need that shoe. Burroughs understands this, the man who posited a world where the only ethical question is “Wouldn’t you?,” a world where the only answer is “Of course you would. You’d do anything, you really would.” If Nike asked you to do a commercial, hawk shoes with your flat Midwestern twang, and your outlaw’s mien—you’d do it. And it’d be beautiful, the most beautiful thing on TV ever, it really would. Air Junkies: the shoe to wear when you need to score.

Phair is Foul
But now the commercial is over, and a video comes on, and it has to be Liz Phair, because Liz Phair is everywhere, on heavy rotation on everything all the time; you can’t go anywhere without Liz already being there. Liz is wearing the cool girls’ uniform: a sort-of-’70s, sort-of-post-grunge look. The song is okay, like Suzanne Vega on fuzz box. In the post-mega-alternative world it is at last possible for folk and punk to mate and produce offspring just like Liz Phair. Liz is playing guitar, which, in the age of grrrl rock, is extremely cool as well: the guitar is a sign that the woman playing it is empowered by her desires. Liz can’t play it very well, but that’s missing the point, which is that she has desires at all. And talks and sings about them to boot.

This is exciting for, apparently, everyone, but mostly for rock critics, a mostly male, notoriously nerdy bunch. Men have never believed that women want it too, so when a woman admits to suffering from desire, just like them, they get all excited, even if the song is lame. Primarily because they think it means they might finally get laid. Women, who have always known that they want it too, say, “Shit. If I had known I could get rich and famous just because I said I liked to fuck too, I’d have done it years ago. PJ Harvey kicks Liz Phair’s ass anyway.” Which is true, but PJ’s not as cute, and therefore not as user-friendly, so we’re stuck with Liz. Lame as that might be.

Mark Van de Walle is the media/culture editor of THE magazine. He reviews regularly for Artforum from Santa Fe.


Can We Talk?
Hypothesis: the sheer weirdness of Joan and Melissa Rivers healing themselves after Edgar’s suicide with a mother-daughter, made-for-TV movie (Tears and Laughter) as therapy was so out there it broke some kind of art-life continuum and propelled Joan literally out there into some kind of cosmic media black hole. Just last May, the woman ruled as a quadruple threat: starring to rave reviews on Broadway, in Sally Marr and her Escorts, as a serious actress (a lifelong dream for her, I kvelled), hosting not one but two daily TV shows (The Joan Rivers Show and Can We Shop?), and kicking major tuchas as a successful faux-jewelry-designer-slash-entrepreneuress on QVC. Then pouf—all of a sudden—in the space of like one week—the Broadway show, gone: the TV shows, also gone; like a comet, she’s in outer orbit. Something’s strange.

Bad Brain Day
Roseanne: The Unauthorized Biography may have been the first-ever made-for-TV movie in which the actors were actually worse-looking than the people they played in real life. This significant inversion of the usual mechanism of glamorization symptomatizes the resentment of anti-Roseannes unable to accept the truly subversive strategy with which she has worked her nonglamour to exert supreme power over the socius, becoming glamorous on her own terms, i.e., as a soothsaying increasingly well-styled fatty. Even to this fan of anything Roseanne, the movie was so tedious I could hardly watch. I mention it not to revive its lame memory but because I believe it may qualify as a rare instance of poetic justice intervening in the real. I actually felt sorry for that actress Denny Dillon—her big break after distinguishing herself by her squealy voice in a run of failed ’70s TV shows turned out to be a big flop. As a fan of the First Amendment as well as of catty celebrity gossip, I eagerly consume “unauthorized” bios, but either everyone involved with this production suffered from a group bad-brain day—or maybe Roseanne really is a good witch.

Rhonda Lieberman is a writer and critic who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her column “Glamour Wounds” appears regularly in Artforum.


Great Danes
My teenage girlhood was thwarted. because I went to an all-boys high school and remained a boy. It would be years before I learned frock knowledge, femme dominance, and pussy-whipping, all of which by that time would have little to do with girlhood. What I did learn was that the hallways of high school were never really filled with boys or girls but with waiting and distraction that had decided to look just like them. Watching Angela Chase (the amazing Claire Danes) in My So-Called Life (ABC) brings back teenage girlhood as if it were a language I had forgotten I’d known. Angela waits for something to happen and when it does it’s not what she’s been waiting for, she’s distracted by thinking about what it means, a threadbare shirt or someone’s enthralling slouch, she confronts who she cares about most, often by saying nothing; she dyes her hair and practices saying hi, she partakes of the rite of coffee, she simultaneously babbles and freezes up around her stunning humming maybe love Jordan Catalano (sumptuous Jared Leto), who sings a bit like Michael Stipe after a toke and wants to make snow in the mountains, his back-up plan if his band, Frozen Embryos, doesn’t pan out. To help her deal with making it through the whole day, day after day, Angela has the sweet capable incapabilities of Brian Krakow (Devon Gummersall) and the help of new friends, brave pilgrims, Rayanne Graff (A. J. Langer) and Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz), both of whom are already too well aware of life’s quotidian woundings—which they numb with a sip of a silver flask or a smile that is always about to turn into something else entirely—yet still nervously excited by its prospects. Rayanne has done it all, or acts like she has, which might be the surest sign that she soon will, and Ricky knows who is where and doing what, how to dress with flair and to apply eyeliner, despite not quite figuring out exactly who or how he desires. Danes (with her luscious alto and her nuances of every kind of thrill and doubt), Langer, and Cruz astonish because they display the beauty of anything being what it is—in this case, teenage. What My So-Called Life shows so well is that teenage is a rhythm of talk, a torque of the body, and that the girl’s room is the only place to get the lowdown on being.

American Bedstead
It’s Dick Clark! How old is Dick? He ages the way plastic does, the way you can tell an old dildo from a new one—pliability waning, sheen gone, something rank happening on the inside no one really cares to know about. It’s Dick Clark with Suzanne Somers! John Waters’ Serial Mom helped Suzanne Somers become interesting, her smile menacing, no longer saccharine but cutthroat, and all her blondes and tans just shades of irony, whenever she’s not on a sitcom or hosting some dismal program like this, venues in which she sadly is too often stuck. I keep hoping Suzanne will menace Dick, ask him how old he is, and then recite one of her poems. Certainly that would be more interesting than watching these elaborately staged real-people marriage proposals, televised as if they wouldn’t exist otherwise. The idea was bad enough to begin with, Will You Marry Me? Part II (ABC) makes it the worst, but I guess meeting Dick and Suzanne will give the couples something to talk about until the divorce.

Bruce Hainley reviews for Artforum and teaches at Wesleyan University.